“Is there no way out?” Paz, Octavio. New Directions. Trans. Denise Levertov.
Akerman, Chantal. Je, Tu, Il, Elle.
“Rooms2020.” Originally choreographed 1955 by Anna Sokolow as “Rooms.”; re-imagined and performed in 2020 by the Anna Sokolow Dance Ensemble, whose artistic director is Samantha Geracht. https://sokolowtheatredance.org/video-rooms2020/
Mills, Dana. Dance and Activism. Bloomsbury Academic.
Post-covid, there are plenty of folks looking at and making art about being secluded in a small living space. I fortuitously came across three pertinent pieces around the same time; the three speak to being shut-in, and they speak to each other. One is a poem, one is a film, and one is dance.
Preamble (3 items):
1: I would never have known about the dance piece if I hadn’t read Dana Mills’s Dance and Activism (Bloomsbury Academic, 2022) – so, debt acknowledged.
2: I’m a bit out of my depth in talking about dance, which I don’t know much about or have many words to describe. That’s part of the reason I want to pass these starting-point observations along to someone who might be able to do more with them.
3: I don’t understand Spanish, and my Duolingo French isn’t there yet. Please appreciate that my observations here refer to a translation of a Spanish poem and the subtitles written on a French film. That’s (another) part of the reason I want to pass these starting-point observations along to someone who might be able to do more with them. Calling all polyglot dance buffs…
The first half hour or so of Chantal Akerman’s 1974 film Je, Tu, Il, Elle is spent in one room with a young woman who has entered what we will later learn is a voluntary seclusion; she is speechless on screen, but narrates in voiceover. The backstory to her shut-in-ness is alluded to but for the most part withheld as she moves furniture, removes furniture, removes clothing, writes a letter, rewrites a letter, and rewrites the letter again, all while slowly eating a large bag of sugar.
“Rooms2020” is a 45-minute dance piece performed in the dancers’ apartments, captured on cell phone cameras (watch here https://sokolowtheatredance.org/video-rooms2020/). The piece is subdivided into group and solo dances which have their own titles: “Alone,” “Dreams,” “Escape,” “Going,” “Desire,” “Panic,” “Daydream,” “Street” “The End?” and “Coda.” Artistic director Samantha Geracht Myers contextualises “Rooms2020” in terms of history and legacy of Anna Sokolow's choreography for "Rooms" – as quoted in Dance and Activism:
“When Anna made ‘Rooms’ in 1955 she was looking at how isolated people were
feeling even living on top of one another in a tenement building. In 2020 we are all
feeling just as isolated even if we have access to 24-hour social media. While the world
is very different in many ways, the basics of how we feel as people have not changed at
Octavio Paz’s 1952 poem, “Is there no way out?” builds up this sad shifting yearning miasma around time, space, self, and furniture in a rented room (“from that hotel room in San Francisco I stepped/right into Bangkok, today is yesterday.”) Rented rooms come up here and there in other of Paz’s poems, to divergent effect; this is just the rented room of his that most reminded me of those lockdown feelings.
I’ll use pull-quotes from “Is there no way out” to begin to provisionally compare the poem, the film, and the dance.
1. Paz writes:
“And my thoughts that gallop and gallop and get
no further also fall and rise, and turn
back and plunge into the stagnant waters of
The protagonist in Je, Tu, Il, Elle drafts and re-drafts a letter that gets longer each time she writes it; we know little of what she writes or who the letter is for; language seems to be going a lot of nowhere.
The dance-language of “Rooms” also does a lot of frenetic galloping nowhere; you could look at the dance called “Panic” with its almost stereotyped movements, or the sudden alertness in the night kitchen of “Going.” Overall in “Rooms2020,” there’s an unsteady oscillation between extremes of energy, from stylized hyperactivity to flopping energyless into a chair.
2. Paz writes:
“The time is past already for hoping for time’s
arrival, the time of yesterday, today and tomorrow,
yesterday is today, tomorrow is today, today all
is today, suddenly it came forth from itself
and is watching me,”
In Je, Tu, Il, Elle, the young woman, speaking in voiceover, claims that she has spent at least 28 days in the room; I tend to read this as her noticing one full menstrual cycle passing in the absence of other clocks and calendars. There is little other visual evidence of the passage of time except for changes in her slightly messy hair.
3. Paz writes:
“I am standing, quiet at the centre of the circle
I made in falling away from my thoughts,
I am standing and have nowhere to turn my eyes
to, not one splintered fragment of the past
all childhood has brought itself to this instant
and the whole future is these pieces of
furniture nailed to their places,
the wardrobe with its wooden face, the chairs
lined up waiting for nobody,
the chubby armchair with its arms spread, obscene
as if dead in its bed,
the electric fan–conceited insect–the lying
window, the actual without chinks or cracks,
all has shut itself up in itself, I have come back
to where I began, everything is today and
Re: furniture: Akerman’s character changes the furniture around in her room (paints it, rearranges it) before finally hauling everything out of the space except her bare mattress; when the bare mattress is the only furnishing left, she continues to move it around. Re: time: as I mentioned, at this point in the film, the viewer has only a provisional understanding of what has happened to her before we meet her in self-isolation; she might as easily have been there for a day or a year; we “have nowhere to turn our eyes/to” because barely “one splintered fragment of the past” is given to us to interpret what we see.
Re: furniture: In “Rooms2020” the dancers seem to have kept their houses as normal, with mops and cell phone chargers and kitchen appliances in clear view. (In “Panic” a bug slowly crawls across the floor in one of the dances in the corridor; probably accidental, but a great touch.) Re: windows: In most parts of the performance, windows (or their absence) contribute to the sense of having nowhere to go. “Panic” is danced in a room with no windows and a corridor with no windows; “The End” and “Going” are performed in rooms with windows but after sunset, and in “Going” the windows reflect the person dancing rather than providing a view out; the sheer curtains in “Escape” make a nowhere of the greeny landscape outdoors, etc, etc.
4. Paz writes:
exit that doesn't give onto this instant,
this instant is I, I went out of myself all at
once, I have no name and no face,
I am here, cast at my feet, looking at myself
looking to see myself seen.”
In Je, Tu, Il, Elle, the young woman tells us that she has assessed her own reflection. Later, her nudity takes on a slightly exhibitionist character as she stands in view of ground-floor windows.
In “Escape” in “Rooms2020,” the woman dancer pulls at her skirt in a way that I would say invokes a distressed undressing, and also scrutinises her face using a cell phone camera.
5. Paz writes:
“the boring through of the wall, the comings and
goings, reality shutting doors,
putting in commas, the punctuation of time”
“Boring through of the wall” and “putting in commas, the punctuation of time” feels to me like an apt description of the way the dancers move in “Rooms.” What do I mean by that? Here is where my vocabulary comes up short…